Nerve agents (also called nerve gases) are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are preferred military weapons because they are so deadly but decay quickly after initial use and become harmless.
Nerve agents are similar to insect pesticides known as “organophosphates.”
They work much like organophosphates and the types of harmful effects are very similar, but nerve agents are much more potent.
Nerve gases are usually liquid at room temperature.
Germany first developed sarin, one of the most noted nerve agents, in 1938 as a pesticide.
Sarin is clear, tasteless liquid that has no odor. It can evaporate into a gas, but it usually spreads slowly in this form.
Pure sarin gas is 26 times more deadly than cyanide. Symptoms include runny nose, watery eyes, small pinpoint pupils, blurred vision, drooling, sweating, chest tightness, nausea, and headache.
The gas would not be difficult to synthesize, but it would require massive amounts and the right weather conditions to be an effective terrorist weapon.
Treatment for sarin gas poisoning
Treatment for exposure to nerve agents such as sarin gas consists of a compound called atropine.
Some soldiers are issued kits that contain auto-injectors of atropine, pralidoxime chloride, and diazepam.
Pralidoxime chloride, also known as 2-PAM, blocks the effects of nerve gas.
Diazepam, or generic Valium, is normally given to patients in order to stop an active seizure, or to curb severe anxiety. It can also be used as a pre-treatment drug for nerve agent exposure, or at the onset of severe symptoms of nerve agent exposure.
Iraq and the Kurds
Nerve agents have never been deployed in warfare, except by the Iraqis in the Iraq/Iran War of 1980-88.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Saddam Hussein used sarin on the Kurds in northern Iraq during a 1987-88 campaign known as the Anfal.”
It is also suspected that chemical warfare agents were used directly against United States soldiers in Iraq during the Gulf conflict, producing a set of symptoms now referred to as the “Gulf War Syndrome.”
The symptoms included digestive and respiratory problems, fatigue, and severe flu-like symptoms.
Some have postulated the theory that no coalition forces died from the chemical agents because the Iraqis wanted to wound our soldiers, not kill them, since wounded soldiers require more attention and resources than dead ones.
This is not a unique approach to warfare, and is reminiscent of the strategy behind the Viet Cong booby traps in the jungles of Southeast Asia, many of which were designed to inflict horrible wounds on US soldiers without killing them.
Impure sarin was used as a weapon in 1994 by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.
On June 27, refrigerated trucks with spraying mechanisms were driven to Matsumoto, targeting three judges who were set to hear a case against the group.
The plan was to keep the judges from hearing the case.
In the sarin attack that followed, seven people died and hundreds more were injured, including the three judges. The plan worked.
On March 20, 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult boarded five different subway trains in Tokyo, each carrying an umbrella with a sharpened steel tip, multiple packages of sarin liquid, and a hypodermic syringe containing atropine sulfate.
The plan was to simultaneously release the gas in crowded subway cars on the different trains.
Like Muslim terrorists, these Aum Shinrikyo members considered murder a religious act, even a holy act, that would bring salvation and a heavenly reward.
They believed that capitalism and America are a source of decay and are enslaving the world, and it was up to the cult members to save the people from this evil influence.
They viewed the people on the trains as capitalistic puppets and instruments of wickedness.
Aum Shinrikyo members were methodically brainwashed using video tapes, sermons, LSD, electric shock therapy, torture, and low-voltage headsets which pass currents through the brain to “implant the correct thought patterns.”
In fact, the members of the cult consumed such massive amounts of LSD that the cult manufactured its own drugs in laboratories.
Aum Shinrikyo means “ all in the supreme truth.” At one time the Aum Shinrikyo cult had over 40,000 members and over one billion dollars in assets, mostly from donations and illegal activities.
They spent tens of millions of dollars on weapons programs, developing the capacity to produce 70 tons of sarin, enough to wipe out Tokyo’s population.
In six elaborate laboratories, they produced phosgene, cyanide, and the nerve agent VX.
They also developed biological weapons, including botulism and anthrax. They bought military hardware from poverty-stricken Russia, including a helicopter for spraying deadly chemicals, and made inquiries about buying nuclear weapons.
Subway Sarin attack
At precisely 8am that Monday morning, the five men placed the bags of sarin, wrapped in newspapers, on the floor of the subway cars and punctured them using the sharpened umbrella tips as they exited onto the platform.
The liquid leaked out and turned to gas, poisoning the unsuspecting commuters.
As the men individually headed for their pre-arranged post-attack rendezvous, one of them began to suffer nerve gas symptoms and injected himself with his atropine syringe.
Twelve people were killed in the Tokyo subways and 1,300 others were seriously injured. Thousands more had lesser injuries. Emergency services were overwhelmed. Hospitals were packed and crowded with the sick and dying victims.
Some of the sarin bags were ineffectively punctured by the men in their haste to get off the train, so the leakage and the effect on the commuters was limited, compared to what it could have been.
The sarin was also crudely manufactured. If the sarin had been properly refined, the death toll would have been in the thousands.
It later came to light that a less pious motive for the attack was involved. Aum Shinrikyo had learned that the cult headquarters was to be raided by the police, and the subway attack was supposed to sidetrack them, making them go after other targets.
In addition, the police headquarters was located next door to the attacked subway station, an added attraction. There was also the hope by the insane cult leader that the attack would be blamed on America, triggering a mutually destructive world war and leaving only the Aum Shinrikyo cult standing.
This time the plan failed.
Two days after the attack, 2,500 police officers raided 25 Aum Shinrikyo properties throughout Japan.
Chemicals, laboratory equipment, and documents were seized.
In the following months, over 500 raids were made against Aum Shinrikyo.
More than 50 children were taken into care, many of them still wearing the low-voltage brainwashing headsets. 400 people were arrested, along with the cult leader.
This was the first terrorist use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda
The Tokyo subway attack bears an alarming resemblance to the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
The Japanese underestimated Aum Shinrikyo, just as America underestimated Al Qaeda.
Both Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda hated and resented America. Both were extremely well-funded from donations and illegal activities. Both attacks targeted civilians, and both considered the murder of women and small children to be a holy act that would send them to heaven.